July 30, 2012

Chicago CreativeMornings #11: Shawn Smith Channels Naivety in Creativity

Shawn “Shawnimal” Smith and his take on CreativeMornings Icebreakertags™. Photos: Nate Burgos

The eleventh CreativeMornings in Chicago was packed with child-like fascination and play. Shawnimals, a character design studio, is the brainchild of “chief ninja” Shawn Smith. The tagline “Characters Welcome” (not only beholden to the USA Network) is truly, madly and deeply practiced by Shawn, who takes pride “in the power of unbridled, astonishing, ridiculous joy”—visibly evident when he described his approach to getting a creative studio real and sticking to as natural a path of evolution as possible:

Shawn stressed the value of naïveté, an ingredient in risk-taking. “Dare to be naïve,” said futurist Buckminster Fuller. One interpretation of this statement: Be curious.

Pocket Ninjas by Shawnimals. Photo: Shawnimals

Shawn introduced a playful cast of characters, and each—from Aviator Ninja to Professor F. Arbumble—was more than a facade. Each had a backstory and an environment to inhabit: Aviator Ninja’s setting is Ninjatown; Professor F. Arbumble’s home is, aptly named, Professor Island. Naïveté helps drive the imagination of these characters and the composition of their respective worlds.

“We are not pillow pets” was Shawn’s stand on what makes Shawnimals different from others in the character-design space. This contrast-to-the-norm beat is also demonstrated by 37signals, whose co-founder Jason Fried also spoke at a Chicago CreativeMornings event. As he put it in a video about Apple products: “We don’t do … bloated products. We don’t do products that promise the world. We like to execute on the basics beautifully.” Jason and 37signals are counter to companies that make software that’s inflated in both design and build. Like Jason, Shawn and Shawnimals carve their own way by, in this case, fusing “design object plus toy.”

The rewards of persistent work were reinforced in Shawn’s presentation. Transforming a passion into a livelihood is a tall feat. Whether it’s notebooks, software, t-shirts, graphic design, illustration—in Shawn’s case, characters—it is all worth making. To echo Threadless’ co-founder Jake Nickell: “Make or else.”

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Shawn’s Chicago CreativeMornings talk reminded me of the essay “Design and the Play Instinct” by Paul Rand.

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Chicago CreativeMornings #11 was held in The Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wingdesigned by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Renzo Piano and opened during the summer of 2009. Photo: Nate Burgos

Space quickly filling up for Chicago CreativeMornings #11. Photo: Loretta May

Big thanks: to The Art Institute of Chicago for hosting and providing treats for Chicago CreativeMornings #11 (talk’s video in limbo); to organizer Mig Reyes, videographers Craig Shimala and Charlie Curran, photographer Chris Gallevo, for their great work on making CreativeMornings happen in Chicago.

Particularly big thanks: to Freelance graphic designer Loretta May, who proactively blogs and is a recent transplant to Chicago. We met for the first time at the event. I realized that my camera was annoyingly without battery, and she quickly responded with allowing me to use hers. In addition to meeting new people, the other effect of CreativeMornings is hospitality.

Especially big thanks: to Tina Roth Eisenberg—Swissmiss—for inventing CreativeMornings in 2008. The fifth chapter was launched in Chicago, June 2011—my write-up and photos.

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Typeface of quotations is Cooper Black, designed by Oswald Bruce Cooper, in Chicago.

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Read more Chicago CreativeMornings coverage.

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2011 was Chicago CreativeMornings’ debut year. Download the entire collection of selected insights.

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